St Hilda’s 2006

Another old conference report.

Another very belated entry this time on the subject of the St Hilda’s Crime and Mystery Conference 2006, which was held, as usual, at St Hilda’s College, Oxford in August 2006. It is quite difficult to describe St Hilda’s ; an excellent attempt is made at…

I went in 2001 but for various reasons, financial and medical, had not been back until last year. The Conference takes place at St Hilda’s College which is a little way out of the centre (as is typical of Oxbridge women’s colleges), but in this case is compensated for (unlike say Girton at Cambridge) with a really delightful setting – it feels very secluded and the river runs in front of the college’s main building. The Conference itself is a very unique sort of event; lots of writers attend but there is no sort of class or status distinction made, everyone mingles together. All the panels are in front of the whole Conference; there are no sub-panels or divisions. The lectures/talks obviously vary a great deal ; some are more lecture-like, some more talk-like. There is always a general theme for the weekend though this allows for a good deal of latitude. There is no feeling of compulsion about anything and one can always skip a particular panel – I tend to do this once in order to allow myself to recover and have some quite time. The Conference as a whole is a strange amalgam of the serious – some really brilliant papers – and the light – there are always some comic speakers. But it works. Who attends? An amazing range of people. Lots of mystery writers. Americans who build it into their holidays. St Hilda’s alumnae. Mystery fans of many kinds. I would judge that a majority is female. But you just never know who you will meet or where the conversation will go. My personal highlight this year was a late evening discussion with Luci (a real mystery expert) and her partner about Nalgo activism in the 1980’s, what had happened since Unison was formed, the political trajectory of certain Trotskyite parties over the last 10 years and various mutual far-left acquaintances (mine are all from way back but some are still well-known). Not at all what I had expected!

Back to the Conference itself. The theme this year was All In The Family and therefore centred round this theme. I did not take notes in any extensive way so the following is really more a series of jottings, which I will not subdivide as the entries would be too short. Betty Rowlands spoke first and talked of how the first nuclear family also gave us the first murder – Cain and Abel – although as she pointed out there was no mystery about this; she particularly cited P.D. James’ Original Sin and The Testament by Grisham. Elizabeth Edmondson then gave a very brilliant talk starting with the Greek tragedians and the house of Atrius – Aeschylus expecially, but also Euripedes Medea and Sophocles Oedipus. Here we have murder in the family using structure, plot and timing. The stories or pre-stories are myth (Tantalus, Pelops, Atrius/Thyestes) but the dramatists took tight nuclear families – Agamemnon/Iphigenia and the Oedipal family. It would be possible to re-write the Atrian saga from a mystery Point of View using a forensic approach. Aristophanes did not set his comedies within the family; comedy is external, tragedy internal. One could not re-tell the Atrian saga as comedy. Edmondson went on to consider the question of ‘cosies’ and pointed out that Charistie allows appalling crimes when you analyse what actually happened (I nearly shouted my approval at this point!). Edmondson discussed how interesting it would be to re-tell the Atrian saga from another viewpoint – say a slave or The Furies. Moving to present day mysteries she argued that family crimes still feature strongly but there are trends – today’s are to child abuse, paedophilia, fathers abusing daughters. Returning to Agamemnon Edmodndosn asked whetehr he has a choice in the sacrifice of Iphigenia? Yes he does; which leads to the dramatists questioning of the point and value of the entire war. So from the domestic origins the moral repercussions are immense. She ended by discussing Hamlet as another domestic murder. This was a talk of such brilliance and richness – which I have made a  very poor attempt at conveying – that I wish it were available in printed form.

Andrew Taylor’s talk was very different being on the subject of the four crime novels of Sarah Caudwell, a writer of whom I knew nothing. This was another fascinating, and indeed moving talk. Caudwell’s own life was fascinating enough – daughter of Claud Cockburn and Jean Ross (who was the model for Sally Bowles in Cabaret). The protagonist of the books is Hilary Tamar and there was considerable discussion about the gender of this person. Andrew made a strong case for the books though he argued that the series weakened as it progressed.  Rebecca Tope then gave a talk on the life and work of Celia Fremlin. Fremlin’s works are not really whodunnits but she is a very realistic writer ; the setting is nearly always a large house with a family of greater or lesser size – the murder results from family hatreds and tensions. There are a lot of strange characters, dreams and diaries feature heavily but Fremlin disliked psyhcoanalysis. Her personal life has been a chapter of tragedies and she wrote in reaction to her life-events – although as Tope cautioned one must always be cautious about this – so a knowledge of her life does inform the reading of her fiction.

John Lawton opened by suggesting that Poirot and Marple are exceptional in not having any family life of their own – compare Wimsey and Campion. Lawton sees his own fiction as being in some way a revenge on his real family. He went on to talk about Freud – this was another very complex and brilliant talk which, lacking short-hand, I found it difficult to keep pace with. Freud says that family is based on the murder of the father (God) and we all share in a common guilt – if we are adult – for this murder of the father. But then after this murder, guilt prevents access to women by the establishment of incest rules – incest rules and taboos are at the foundation of moarality in Freud’s view (I think my note-taking went awry here!). Incest is the undermining of family life and childhood – it is ambivalent and challenges categories. Googling ‘incest and fiction’ produces Oedipus, Nabokov, Ovid, Tolkien’s Silmarillion, Star Trek (?), Ian McEwan. Laura Wilson’s talk was also centred on incest – she noted how humour can be used to defuse the taboo. Ford’s Tis Pity She’s a Whore also features sibling incest. Indeed much of the discussion centred around sibling incest (notable case in mysteries in Graham’s Badgers Drift). It was interesting to me to listen to these talks at St Hildas having heard Robert Polhemus’s talk on the Lot Syndrome at the Trollope Conference ( ).

 Ann Cleeves’ gave a wonderful talk in which her personal experiences played a big part. She said that mysteries could be seen as cocneptual family therapy sessions. An abusive childhood has replaced the Devil as a catch-all explanation of evil adults. Ann talked about her work in prisons with reading programmes. Her impression was that families inadequacies often played a large part in the history of offenders. The favourite book in Preston (all male) Prison was Anita and Me (Meera Syal) ; why did this appeal? the sense of family Cleeves suggested. She launched a searing attack on the standards of teaching and education in Birtish prisons and suggested that rehabilitation is meaningless unless more is done in this direction. She said that a third of all female prisoners have been abused as  children and a third have children under five – the cycle is locked in and repeated. There are very few educated people in prison and there are very few rich people in prison. A dysfunctional family on its own – it screws a person up but does not lead to crime; it is the addition of social exclusion which leads to crime. This was a brilliant and heartfelt talk which was in some ways the high-light of the Conference.

The foregoing is a very partial account. I missed one session altogether and I only took notes when I was really engaged by the particular talk. I did not really take any notes of the general discussions which were often interesting and lively. But I hope I have still managed to convey something of the flavour of the Conference, the wide-ranging and highly diverse nature of the talks given – some of which were quite brilliant.

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